“The Decision” and ESPN’s Ethics Fail: The Ombudsman Blows the Whistle

ESPN’s special broadcast turning LaBron James’ choice (pompously called “The Decision”) regarding which N.B.A. he would allow to sign him for millions upon millions of dollars was a landmark in the demonstration of bad taste, ego, greed and arrogance by professional athletes . As the sports networks ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, points out in a column almost nobody will read (do you think many of ESPN’s followers are jazzed by issues of journalistic ethics?), it was also a low point in responsible journalism, and shattered  professional ethics standards left and right. ESPN let James’ representatives to choose its own paid interviewer and allowed control the content and ad sales in return for giving ESPN an “exclusive” and a ratings bonanza. The result was a journalistic ethics meltdown.

Some highlights of his criticism (you can read Ohlmeyer’s entire analysis here) :

  • “… in many ways, the network’s decisions in airing the James’ special — and its justification for making them — are a metaphor for what ails the media today.”
  • “If the network wants to be considered the true worldwide leader in sports, it must accept the responsibility that comes with it. As the biggest player in the space, ESPN can establish and give credibility to a story. With that clout, of course, comes the obligation to cover each story not just with journalistic integrity but with appropriate weight — or risk that very same credibility.”
  • “Despite ESPN’s intention, the network did not have “total editorial control” in the James announcement…if the interviewee also brings along his own interviewer, you cannot protect the integrity of the broadcast. According to ESPN, the understanding with [ James’ hand-picked, non-ESPN interviewer Jim] Gray was that he would ask James “a few questions” before LeBron announced his destination. That “few” turned into 16 questions. And on a live telecast, when an announcer who doesn’t work for your network gets to questions 7, 8, 9, 10 … well, there’s nothing the producers can do. They can’t kill his microphone; they can’t come out and pull him out of his chair; they can’t even fire him because he’s not in their employ.”
  • “No matter how convoluted the intellectual gymnastics, ESPN “paid” for exclusive access to a news story. For the network, there is quantifiable revenue associated with the Thursday 9-10 p.m. programming hour. That revenue was forgone, yielded in exchange for the exclusive. Team LeBron sold those advertising units. The fact that it was in turn distributed to charity was immaterial, journalistically. James used ESPN’s commercial spots in an effort to enhance his image as a responsible, caring charitable guy — there’s direct value to James in doing so, and he did it courtesy of the network, and with the sponsor’s money.”
  • “As to transparency, ESPN failed miserably where it mattered most. Although there was no attempt to hide the Gray involvement or the inventory arrangement leading up to the broadcast, the viewers were not explicitly told at the most appropriate moments that conflicts existed. Before turning from the Bristol set to Gray, ESPN should have advised viewers that Gray had been selected by James’ team to do the interview.”
  • “At the top of the show, or leading into the first commercial break, the network had an obligation to make viewers clearly aware that the spots they would be watching had been sold by James, with the money targeted for charity. ESPN’s disclosure requirement is to the viewers of that very show, not simply to other media (through promotional interviews or news releases) or to viewers of other programs. ESPN should never have traded inventory for access or allowed a subject to select his inquisitor, and if that meant losing the exclusive, so be it.”
  • “Paying to play in a news environment is both dangerous and wrong. ESPN likes to present itself as an unbiased news-and-information service, able to negotiate conflicting relationships with those it covers. But refusing to pay for interviews has been an accepted industry policy for decades. Some organizations do regularly violate it. The National Enquirer, The Star, TMZ and others make no bones about what they do. But that diminishes their reputations in public and professional circles and, rightly, causes consumers to question the validity of their information.”
  • “The Decision” wasn’t a tip from a paid informant exposing a corporate cover-up, nor was it a whistle-blower revealing government wrongdoing. Nothing that idealistic. This was the saga of an athlete offering to unveil a two-word career choice — “South Beach” — on national television and a network blinded by the lure of stunning ratings that thought it could dance around what should be a revered journalistic tenet.”
  • “Disclosure is the honest way of dealing with the audience. For it to be effective, it should signal to viewers that other agendas might exist and it needs to occur at those moments that offer context about possible conflicts. Timely transparency is a service — generic transparency is often used as a copout. Disclosure doesn’t provide total absolution. To borrow some of the hyperbolic tone of “The Decision,” consider that Bernie Madoff was transparent when he admitted operating the largest Ponzi scheme in history, but it was still stealing.”
  • “ESPN agreeing with Team LeBron to present “The Decision” also gives voice to mailbag criticism of the cozy relationship between the network and superstar athletes. The perception is that the network plays favorites, even in its news — whether it’s James, Favre, Ben Roethlisberger or Tiger Woods. Try as ESPN might to make decisions based on sound criteria, it will always be open to criticism. That is exacerbated when the network is seen to be in business with someone it’s covering.”
  • “ESPN can brush off concerns raised about “The Decision,” but it does so at its own peril. A major component of ESPN’s appeal — a value the network has cultivated for three decades — is that the audience trusts what it’s watching. Viewers want to believe the network is treating them respectfully, openly, fairly and honestly. If not, why should they bother watching?”

3 thoughts on ““The Decision” and ESPN’s Ethics Fail: The Ombudsman Blows the Whistle

  1. It seems to me that perhaps ESPN should have “sold” the air time as “Paid Programming” and done the typical “infomercial” disclosures.

    Would that have alleviated some of this train wreck?

  2. Pingback: Bret Favre, Meet Derek, LeBron, and Tiger | Ethics Alarms

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